Late-night talk show king Johnny Carson used to say he could gauge the political mood of the country by audience reaction to the jokes in his monologues. And it was generally acknowledged that Carson could affect a politician’s popularity by making him the butt of jokes.
But to the extent an entertainment figure can shape political opinion in the U.S., it appears that Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” has achieved new heights of influence. Not only that, his popularity may reflect a growing trend of people aged 18 to 25 away from traditional TV news sources and toward the brand of cynical, faux news offered by Stewart.
The last time media influence similar to Stewart’s was exerted was back in the 1960’s and 1970’s when longtime CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite shaped opinions in his largely adult audience. Knowing this, “The Daily Show” was a must destination for Democratic candidates competing in the 2004 presidential primaries.
Comedy Central has signed Stewart through 2008, putting him in a position to sculpt the perception of candidates in the next presidential race where neither party will be nominating an incumbent.
So influential has the comedian’s show become, publishers are vying to get their authors to sit across the desk from him. No other TV show has the power to sell so many books, with the possible exception of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” The book “Freakonomics,” for example, did not go through the roof until after its authors appeared with Stewart.
His own book, “America,” has sold 1.5 million copies. Ad revenue for “The Daily Show” increased an astounding 100% through August and the show’s audience as measured by Nielsen Media Research is up 20% to 1.4 million this year.
Stewart’s sway even reached into a rival network earlier this year and helped end a long-running program. Some media observers believe his guest appearance on CNN’s “Crossfire,” where he verbally demolished a sputtering co-host Tucker Carlson and blamed the program’s tone for hurting America, contributed to Carlson’s subsequent firing and the show’s later demise. The show may already have been on the ropes, but Stewart delivered a knockout punch.
While marveling at Stewart’s success, veteran L.A. entertainment publicist and multi-book author Michael Levine calls the comedian’s affect on the 18 to 25 generation, “Scary.” “He has a perfect pitch for the times we live in, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a good thing for America,” he told me.
According to Levine, Stewart is the right messenger at the right time for a generation whose attitude can best be summed up by the word, “Whatever.” He believes it is a generation devoid of attention span, not interested in nuance or serious thought, and one with a cynical, satirical view of the world matched by Stewart.
“It is easier to blame Bush and Cheney for your problems than to take responsibility for your own role in them,” he contends.
With the U.S. coming under increasing competition from countries like China, whose younger generation is not turning away from intellectual endeavors, one has to wonder what Stewart’s brand of dispensing “news” portends. If it is accurate to say, “I have seen the future of TV news in America and it is Jon Stewart,” then what is the future of America?
The difference between comedians such as Jay Leno and David Letterman on one hand and Stewart on the other is that Leno and Letterman do jokes about the news, and Stewart has sold a generation on the idea that his jokes are the news. Not only would Edward R. Murrow be aghast, but even Carson might shake his head at erasing the line that separates the two.
This article first appeared at theOneRepublic.com.